My Top 5: True Tales of Logos I Love
When the dog bites. When the bee stings. When I’m feeling sad. I simply remember my favorite logos, and then I don’t feel so bad.
I love logos. I don’t know a designer who doesn’t. And it’s increasingly hard to find anyone who doesn’t hold strong opinions and passion around these influential marks, icons, and letters. Here are five of my favorites and the stories that make them unforgettable in my mind’s eye.
1. The Criterion Collection
Designers: Paula Scher and Julia Hoffmann of Pentagram
As a teenager with a developing brain and naive worldview, going to the movies was a blast. Any film that Hollywood hurled into my midwestern megaplex was hilarious, thrilling, captivating, and provocative. A short-list of garbage movies I remember loving include: Armageddon, Anaconda, Batman & Robin, Happy Gilmore, Encino Man, She’s All That, even Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
And then the Criterion Collection ruined everything.
At 18 I went off to college and was rightly schooled and exposed to a world beyond my narrow/privileged view as a white, cisgender male from middle America. In addition to a whole host of mind-opening liberal arts courses, I took a class called Modern World Cinema. Films like 8½, Battle for Algiers, Bicycle Thieves, Breathless, Do the Right Thing, The Hidden Fortress, and Wings of Desire changed the way I thought about storytelling and opened my mind to culturally diverse issues and art.
These films also crushed my ability to blindly enjoy the megaplex minutiae of my youth. This crushing, although welcomed in hindsight, has been neatly encapsulated by the Criterion Collection identity done by venerable Pentagram designers Paula Scher and Julia Hoffmann.
The Criterion Collection, a video distribution company that focuses on critically-acclaimed classic and contemporary films, has a very modest logo — an off-kilter ‘C’ that evokes a film projector, a camera lens, or a circular story yet completed. Like the films it represents, the subtlety of the mark is a terrific contrast to over-the-top moviemaking from the likes of Michael Bay or Jim Carrey.
The strength of the Criterion Collection logo is reinforced by some of the best DVD packaging art and design. My favorite of which is by Neil Kellerhouse. I also enjoy the student projects that have picked up on the Criterion packaging design legacy, like this one for the Harry Potter films.
2. Hartford Whalers
Designer: Peter Good
Negative space logos are like catnip for graphic designers. We love them for their graphic cleverness, we ogle over their formal balance, and like a magic eye art virtuoso, we relish in seeing what many people miss out on.
Most notably in this logo sub-genre is the Fedex with its crisp right-facing arrow emerging from the space between the ‘E’ and ‘x’. Other well-known examples include the Toblerone bear nestled in the Swiss Alps, The Guild of Food Writers’ ingenious spoon-in-pen mark, and the now defunct Big Ten logo with its hidden 11.
But my favorite in this category comes from an extinct hockey team. The Hartford Whalers were an NHL team from 1979–97 hailing from Hartford, Connecticut. While the team had scant hockey success, their logo in my opinion is the undefeated champion of sports logos.
A wide and blocky ‘W’ forms the foundation of the logo, a well-drawn whale tale silhouette tops the ‘W’, and between the ‘W’ and tale, a flared ‘H’ forms in the negative space. It’s crisp, bold, minimalist, and brawny.
While the aesthetic and conceptual parts of the logo are stellar, my affinity for the logo is also undoubtedly bound in my memories of the Whalers. It was the ’90s, and I was kid caught up in the hockey hype of The Mighty Ducks, rollerblades, and the Sega Genesis’ classic NHL ’94. The Whalers weren’t a very good team, didn’t have any well-known stars, and I didn’t know many fans. But that logo made me a fan then, as it does today.
For a deeper appreciation of the Whalers logo, this podcast episode with John Hodgman is a terrific listen:
3. Centre Pompidou
Designer: Jean Widmer
I love museums. I used to work at couple rad ones — Museum of Pop Culture and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. My wife is even a curator at one here in Boston. I love the museum-going experience in the way it engages so many of my senses and snaps me into a focused and absorptive state.
It starts with content — be it art collections, historical artifacts, children exhibits, sculpture parks, or any number of interesting cultural relics. But I’m quickly drawn to the supporting elements as well: inspiring architecture and interior design, the beautiful utility of museum wayfinding, some of the best people-watching in any city, and of course, exiting through the gift shop.
Centre Pompidou in Paris not only hits all these notes, it also happens to wield a splendid logo to sear those fond museum memories together in my mind. There’s nothing terribly clever or subtle about the logo done by Swiss designer Jean Widmer in 1977. The thick stripes are a fairly straightforward distillation of the structural expressionism architecture of the building. The traditional Parisian cityscape that surrounds the complex gets a nice visual jolt from the Centre Pompidou’s exposed escalator façade. The mark is terrific for being simple, bold, and graphic but mostly succeeds in the way it reminds me of the rich and absorptive experience I had exploring the museum.
For a deeper dive on Widmer’s Centre Pompidou Logo, I recommend Design Issues’ 2010 essay: About One Striped Rectangle.
4. Mass Pike
Don’t get me wrong, I despise highway traffic as much as the next person. And the Mass Pike certainly has its share of bumper-to-bumper bummers and masshole maniacs. But the Massachusetts Turnpike also represents a bit of freedom and excitement. It’s a weekend getaway to the Berkshires. It’s an initial leg in hightailing it all the way to Seattle on I-90. It’s a song from my angsty youth about lost loves and highway drives. It’s a great logo of a big hat!
To represent this 138-mile stretch of Interstate 90, Massachusetts adeptly dug into its settler roots and snagged that iconic buckled capotain hat for their logo. Buckles on pilgrim hats are in fact fabrications from Victorian-era artists, but they do make for a crisp addition on the Mass Pike logo.
The hat logo is terrific in its formal function — whether I’m in Allston or Holyoke, I can easily spot it as I search for an I-90 on-ramp. Aesthetically, it’s nothing to write home about, but its simplicity and symmetry are commendable. And I think we can all agree that it’s lightyears better than the tangled mess the New Jersey Turnpike has gotten itself into.
5. Sesame Street
Designer: Children’s Television Workshop
What’s your earliest memory? In mine I’m jumping on milk crates in a coat closet mimicking a swashbuckling scene from Sesame Street. The scene must have been Gordon or maybe Luis dressed as a seafaring captain steering a ship through a treacherous storm. I was probably 4-years-old and very much into Sesame Street.
Flash forward 30 years, and now I have a rambunctious 2-year-old named Percy. That swashbuckling impression and a whole host of Sesame Street memories have come back into view as I watch my son form his foundational memories and experiences. He’s a big fan of Cookie Monster.
The visual brand of Sesame Street is part of what holds those memories so firmly in my mind. From the Jim Henson Muppet aesthetic to the groundbreaking animation styles, it’s one of the most eclectically effective brands across the globe.
The street sign logo is just one touchpoint of the global Sesame Street brand, but it’s one of my favorite logos. I love the straightforward typographic approach. The street sign motif employs a crisp, uppercase use of Interstate Bold Compressed. There’s no clever conceptual icon that needs to be interpreted, no watered-down symbol used as a shorthand. After all, what could be more symbolically potent than letterforms themselves? The typographic approach is graphically sound as well as apt for the educational aims of Sesame Street.
Beyond the logo, the visual brand is is undoubtedly bolstered by Sesame Street’s authentic and noble content. In addition educational mainstays, Sesame Street has tackled tough and earnest topics including parental incarceration, divorce, HIV/AIDS, and environmentalism to name a few.
I’m a creative director and designer at Tectonic, a design studio that works with ambitious companies like Amazon, HBO, and Microsoft to create large digital design systems. For our projects, the design of a logo is often just one piece of a bigger puzzle that includes broader visual exploration and execution, design research, user experience, and motion/prototyping.
When it comes to designing the logo, we certainly toil over the formal craftsmanship. Does it have the right balance of unity and variety? Does it hold up well at small sizes or fall apart in billboard-sized environs? Is it conceptually sound and compelling? Will it systematically dovetail with product, marketing, and digital contexts?
This formal craftsmanship is important, but a logo is best realized when it becomes an effective jumping off point for authentic experiences and memories. The anecdotes on my favorite logos above are personal stories. They elevate a logo beyond the sum of its parts into a story-driven experience that sticks with me even decades later.
As creative director at Tectonic, Ben leads envisioning projects wrestling with themes including ephemeral media, dynamic typographic systems, and contemporary visual design. Ben loves collaboration, heady problems, Murphy beds, grids, typography, and unity + variety. He is an alum of the University of Washington’s design program and currently lives in Somerville, Massachusetts with his wife and 2-year-old client, Percy.
Tectonic is an experience design studio in Seattle and Boston. We collaborate with the ambitious companies to reimagine how people interact with content and technology.